9 Ways To Tell The Difference Between Stress & Anxiety

by Kyli Rodriguez-Cayro

Both stress and anxiety can impact our day-to-day lives, but sometimes telling the difference between anxiety and stress is difficult. The American Psychological Association (APA) describes stress as a “feeling of being overwhelmed, worried or run-down” caused by minor or major situations. After traumatic events, some people can develop Acute Stress Disorder, which is a period (up to one month) where the person experiences intensive stress symptoms — which are similar to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms— before returning to a better mental health state. Stress, though frustrating and hard to cope with at times, is a completely normal emotional response to life’s most difficult and minor situations.

Anxiety, however, is a serious mental health issue that goes beyond feeling stressed, and is a diagnosable disorder in and of itself. APA explains that “people with anxiety disorders usually have recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns. They may avoid certain situations out of worry. They may also have physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling, dizziness or a rapid heartbeat.” Anxiety disorders affect over 40 million Americans over the age of eighteen. Moreover, a 2012 study published in the journal Psychological Medicine estimated one in thirteen people suffer from an anxiety disorder worldwide. Though anxiety and stress may have similar symptoms, it is important to understand they are not the same thing. Here are nine ways to distinguish between stress and anxiety.


Your anxiety is chronic

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) can only be diagnosed after a patient experiences at least six chronological months of severe worry, tension, and other accompanying anxiety symptoms. While feeling stressed out during big events or life changes is completely normal, it may be anxiety if your worry feels constant and never-ending.


Anxiety can be a reaction to stress

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) explains on their website, "The difference between [anxiety and stress] is that stress is a response to a threat in a situation. Anxiety is a reaction to the stress." Basically, anxiety disorders can be developed due to high amounts of stress. So, if you still feel worried once a stressful situation has passed, it's most likely anxiety.


With anxiety, you may experience co-occuring physical disorders

Both stress and anxiety can be detrimental to your physical health: some of the symptoms include restlessness, irregular or rapid heartbeat, sweating, shaking, stomachaches, fatigue and more. However, studies have shown people with anxiety often experience a whole host of co-occuring chronic physical illnesses such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), migraines, and even respiratory diseases. There's no questioning that stress takes a toll on your body, but you may have anxiety if your physical symptoms become diagnosable physical disorders.


You don't necessarily need a "reason" to be anxious

Stress can be caused by a number of stressful situations, including a rocky relationship, taking an important test, or a competition. On the other hand, people with anxiety don't need a "reason" to be anxious. Sure, everyone with an anxiety disorder has their own individual triggers, but the feelings of panic or dread don't necessarily need to stem from one situation in particular. If you are experiencing the symptoms of stress without a obvious cause, you may have an anxiety disorder.


If you have anxiety, your feelings of fear or dread may be more intense

Anxiety disorders are typically accompanied by phobias (like social phobias, which are common), irrational fears, and irrational thoughts. Stress may cause your thinking to be a little cloudy, but anxiety is characterized overwhelming fear that you can't control. So, if you notice a pattern of negative or drastic fearful thinking, it's more likely you have anxiety than just stress.


Stress is a response to a situation, while anxiety is a state of being

Like mentioned earlier, anxiety disorders are typically a chronic, lifelong struggle. Though you can treat anxiety disorders with medication and therapy, they always have the potential to impact your life. If your stress comes and goes pretty easily without largely impacting your life, you probably just have a pretty normal stress response to life events.


You have panic attacks

Panic Disorder is a type of anxiety disorder defined by recurring episodes of panic attacks — which is defined by the National Institute of Mental Health as "sudden periods of intense fear that may include palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate; sweating; trembling or shaking; sensations of shortness of breath, smothering, or choking; and feeling of impending doom." If you frequently experience panic attacks when in stressful situations, that is a tell-tale sign that your stress is actually an anxiety disorder.


If you have another mental illness, you probably have anxiety — not stress

Like majority of mental illnesses, anxiety disorders often have co-occuring mental health issues. Anxiety has been known to co-occur with eating disorders, depression and mood disorders, substance abuse issues, body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), adult ADHD, and more. If you're experience other mental health issues, it's a safe bet to assume you're experiencing anxiety, not just your average stress.


Anxiety is debilitating

Stress and anxiety can both negatively impact your quality of life, but anxiety can be completely debilitating to the people who live with it. When you're stressed out, you may still be able to complete the task at hand or finish your day. However, if you live with anxiety, little tasks or barriers could feel so monumental that it keeps you from carrying on and coping.

Understanding the differences between anxiety and stress can help you better treat the symptoms you are experiencing. While stress will pass, determining if you have possibly have an anxiety disorder sooner rather than later could make all the difference for your mental health.